For some time now, some of my on-line friends have advised me to provide a version of CassidySlangScam without the invective aimed at Cassidy and his supporters. In response to that advice, I am working on providing a glossary of the terms in Cassidy’s ludicrous book How The Irish Invented Slang with a short, simple and business-like explanation of why Cassidy’s version is wrong.
Blowen is an old term in criminal jargon, defined as ‘a showy or flaunting prostitute, a thief’s paramour’. It was first recorded in the 16th century. There are various suggestions as to its origin, none of them very convincing. Hotten (1865) suggests that ‘blowen may mean one whose reputation has been blown upon, or damaged’. Charles Mackay, the man who tried to do something very similar to Cassidy with Scottish Gaelic, suggested that it comes from blaodh eun, which he says means birdsong, because of the siren-like effect of such women on men. Hmm.
Cassidy’s claim sounds reasonably plausible (certainly compared to Mackay’s, anyway). He claims that it comes from the Irish bláthán. According to Cassidy, this is defined as:
Bláthán (pron. bláhán), n., a small flower, little blossom; fig. a pretty girl, term of endearment for a young girl.
Cassidy cites Dinneen (misspelled as Dineen) and Dwelly for this definition. Ó Dónaill, the most authoritative modern dictionary of the Irish language (not cited by Cassidy), gives the word bláthán with only one definition, grilse, a term that means small fry, young fish. It doesn’t mention blossoms (though the word is almost certainly linked to the Irish bláth meaning flower or blossom) or young girls.
Dinneen gives the following definition: ‘a small flower, a bud; also a fry, as salmon fry; a kind of rock-fish’. Again, nothing about endearment or terms for young girls.
Dwelly’s Dictionary is of no relevance here, because it’s a dictionary of Scottish Gaelic, not of Irish. However, since Cassidy cited it, we should reproduce what it says. The cognate of bláthán given in this dictionary does not support any meaning to do with girls or terms of endearment. It simply says: ‘blàithean -ein, sm dim. of blàth. Little blossom.’
In other words, bláthán can mean a bud or a blossom, or a small fish. Cassidy’s definition is imaginary. Of course, some people might be thinking that a term for a little blossom could easily be used figuratively, as Cassidy said. However, if this were the case, it would probably have been recorded.
There is also another good reason to regard this claim with suspicion. In Irish, there are three commonly-used diminutives. One is the general –ín found in words like cailín (colleen) or poitín (poteen). The other two were traditionally known as the sister diminutive (-óg) and the brother diminutive (-án). Generally speaking, animate words with –óg are female. A giobóg is an untidy or lazy woman, a sraoilleog is a slattern. Many of these are pejorative terms. Words with –án are either referring to men or unspecified. (Like cancrán, a grumpy person.) However, while is conceivable that bláithín would be used as a pet term for a girl (Bláithín is used as a girl’s name, after all), it is not at all likely that bláthán would be used that way in reference to girls or women because it’s basically a masculine diminutive, even if the dictionary meanings were appropriate – which they aren’t.